A FORMER Labour first minister has revealed he is ready to back Scottish independence following the Brexit vote.

Describing the decision to leave the European Union as “like a bereavement”, Henry McLeish said it was a sign of the growing gap between political values in Scotland and England.

McLeish, who was first minister between October 2000 and November 2001, said independence didn’t have to be the monopoly of the SNP but could be adopted as a policy by Scottish Labour.

“The Labour Party has got to recognise that independence should not just be the flag of the Scottish National Party. They have no right to a monopoly, because independence could come from any party,” McLeish said.

“Independence isn’t necessarily about their kind of nationalism. It’s about wanting to be maybe like Finland, or Sweden or Denmark – the Nordic countries generally. We would have a different way of life, different social investment policies, be a genuinely social democratic country.”

He warned that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon should not be forced by impatient SNP members into a premature referendum.

“There are a lot of issues, from the currency through to nation building, that the SNP haven’t bothered with too much. I think an early referendum would be a mistake,” he said.

“I think that within five years is a possibility and, yes, I would really, really be seriously thinking about casting my vote [for independence]”.

In an interview with Public Finance he said his readiness to support independence for Scotland had arisen partly because of the Brexit vote.

“That was like a bereavement for me,” he said. “I think it was the most monumentally stupid decision this country has taken since 1945.

“That said, Scotland and England’s politics are diverging. There’s a growth of hard-headed nationalism in England, there’s xenophobia, there’s racism, there’s an ugly politics developing that we’re not part of.

“I think that for Scots it’s not just the European Union issue. It’s other issues that tend to cement the idea that maybe part of the union is not where we want to be. And being part of the EU is much more internationalist, much more ambitious, much more where a modern Scotland could be.”

He said freedom of movement would have to be accepted by the UK in return for continued access to the EU single market.

“If the Conservative Party and their right wing and Ukip are not willing to have that, we might be left isolated if we try to get all the trade deals without being in the single market," he said. "That, to me, would convince most Scots and much of the country that we’d had enough.”

McLeish spoke after Tory Prime Minister Theresa May travelled to Edinburgh for talks with Sturgeon.

“Tactically, politically, it was a sound idea but I’m not sure it will do much to close that gap that has now emerged between Scotland and England,” he said, adding that it was “disgusting” that May had refused to guarantee residency to EU citizens in the UK.

“To use them as a bargaining chip is mean and miserable,” he said.

Despite the UK vote to leave the EU, McLeish suggested Westminster should have the final say after the exit terms had been negotiated.

“I’ve always been sceptical of referendums because you cannot take massively complicated issues and reduce them to a binary number, yes or no, especially when, after 43 years, this country has been starved of any decent debate about the EU. This is shallow democracy, and we deserve to have another go at it.”